Avoiding Pitfalls of Relational Truces

As discussed in our previous podcast, calling a "relational truce" means designating a period of time where you agree not to talk about the issue that is causing conflict. While it can be beneficial to a relationship, there can also be negative consequences to this method of conflict resolution. In today's podcast Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff continue their discussion on relational truces, specifically focusing on how to avoid pitfalls of these truces. 


Transcript 

Chris Grace:

Welcome to the Art of Relationships Podcast with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff.

Tim Muehlhoff:

And Dr. Chris Grace.

Chris Grace:

Awesome. We are here being able to spend some time with you all talking about relationships, all things relationships. In fact, one of the things that recently we've been talking about, Dr. Muehlhoff, is this idea of conflict. More importantly, some of the ways in which we deal with conflict and the need to what you've labeled as calling a "truce." Talk a little bit about that real quick. We'll continue that conversation.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Pairing off of the podcast previous to this one, is a relational truce is making a decision for a period of time. It could be a day or two. It could be a week, even longer, where you do not talk about the issue that is causing the conflict. It could be finances, kid's schedule, things like that. For me and Noreen, she's borrowing my hair products. Drives me crazy. I'm actually bald, so that was a joke. Whatever is causing the conflict, we make a decision not to talk about that. We looked at the book of Proverbs that says, "A wise man overlooks an offense." For a period of time, we simply do not talk about this issue. We likened it to World War I, where there was actually a Christmas truce between Germans and the British that lasted upwards of a month.

 

It's a great concept. If you've not listened to it, I suggest we go back and listen to the other podcast, but as good as the truce concept is, there are some pitfalls to this approach. One is what we like to call "falling in love with the truce". In other words, you say, "All right. We're not talking about finances any more. We're not talking about the in-laws any more." You think, "Awesome. That was great!" A two-day truce becomes a four-day truce, becomes a one-week truce, becomes a one-month truce. Then, you're like, "This is awesome. We used to argue all the time about finances and now, because we're not talking about them, we don't argue. I say, 'Let's never talk about finances.'"

Chris Grace:

Yeah. Boy, that could cause some problems, because I think what ends up happening if that becomes an operating way of functioning, you can start to bury things.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's right.

Chris Grace:

Put them under the rug and not really realize they can trip you up still. Even though you swept them underneath there, that rug bunches up, and then at times you could trip over it, if you're not careful. It's something to avoid, isn't it, to be able to talk, be able to take also a truce, but to realize this doesn't give you the freedom and the permission to avoid having these conversations.

Tim Muehlhoff:

If that continued, we would call that "avoidance". The byproduct of avoidance would be latent conflict. Hey, that disagreement's not going anywhere. The hard feelings associated with finances, in-laws, too busy of a work schedule, all those emotions didn't dissipate. The conflict has just temporarily been put on hold so that we can raise the climate, the amount of affection between two people. We talked about "repair mechanisms" the last time.

 

The truce only works as a truce knowing that once we get into a better place emotionally, spiritually, we then are going to go back and talk about it. You and I even talked about last podcast, this idea of meta-communication. You might even explain to them what "meta-communication" was.

Chris Grace:

It's the ability to have a conversation about, when we get to conflict, the conversations we are going to have. A meta-conversation says, "You know, next time we face this particular issue or any conflict, let's set some things ahead of time now, that will determine our better climate or give us a better opportunity to hear each other." That's the whole goal is, "I want to be able to hear you. The best way I can do that is if when we hit this topic, let's set up some times and some procedures. Give me 24, 48 hours, during this time or whatever that set-up is that allows me to be able to process or think through things."

Tim Muehlhoff:

What I'm hearing you saying is I think during the truce, we could have meta-conversations.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

In other words, we're not going to talk about finances, because we're on the truce, but I do think we could say, "Hey, hypothetically a week from now when we do talk about finances, it would be good maybe to package it this way." Or, "This is what tends to get us side-tracked." Those meta-conversations aren't breaking the truce, because you're not getting into the details of finances, you're just having this roundabout conversation about how we should have conversations when the moment comes.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. I think there's a couple of phrases you can oftentimes use in something like that. I think a person during this conversation that you're now having that's a little bit more reasoned, less emotional. You can say, "You know what? Some times when I get overwhelmed, I know I can be overly critical. I can be overly sensitive. I'm trying to avoid that." I think, Tim, what ends up happening is, this is a chance during these meta-conversations, meta-communication, to really express and to show humility both towards not only the other person, but towards the way God sees us. He knows that we are oftentimes we get stressed out. There might be young children. There might be other stressors going on. Just to recognize, "I may not do this well, but thanks for hearing me. Thanks for being sensitive to me. Thanks for knowing, and I want to extend that same thing to you."

Tim Muehlhoff:

I would also advocate something. When the truce is over, and now you're going to talk about finances or in-laws, let's say, there's a really helpful technique from the Harvard Negotiation Project called the third story. The third story is this idea if there was an outsider who was actually sitting, listening to you and your roommate talk about finances, was actually listening to you and your spouse talk about in-laws, how would that third person objectively describe both of your view points?

 

Here's how a third story would work, let's say, with in-laws. Let's say you and your spouse have a disagreement on how long in-laws should stay. If I'm going to bring up the in-law question, evoking the third story, this is what it would sound like. If I'm trying to give both of our perspectives, I would say this, and this is the key to a third story. I want to be charitable to both of our perspectives. I would say both of us value in-laws. We both absolutely want our in-laws to come and feel at home when they're here. When they are here, both of us feel like it's very important that we are good hosts to them. There is a disagreement on how long in-laws should stay. You would love for our in-laws to stay two, three weeks. I would do better if that was maybe-

Chris Grace:

Two to three hours.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Two to three hours. You see what that is? The third story is me trying as much as possible to fairly represent your perspective. I could do the third story this way. I could just say, "Listen. You're in love with your in-laws. You want you mom and dad to stay here forever as if we have no life whatsoever. I would like it for me to be more reasonable amount of time. My goodness, a week is more than enough time." That is not the third story. Why? Because it's so skewed towards my story. It really takes art and compassion to do a really good third story where all your goal with a third story is to bring up the topic, and the other person say, "Okay, that's a fair representation of my perspective. Thank you." That's an art to be able to do that.

Chris Grace:

It really is. It starts also with biblical humility, doesn't it? That notion that Paul talked about it Philippians 2:3-4, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count each other as more significant. Look not only for your interest, but for the interest of others." I think that just being even that third voice or objective opinion could be respective, courteous.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, respectful.

Chris Grace:

That's what it is. It's that quality of meeting somebody half way, right? Then always rather than me first, humility allows us to say, "No, you first. I want to listen, and I want to hear, and I want to represent you." Alisa went on a little trip recently, and we were together on this trip, actually, in Philadelphia. There was a gentlemen that came in. She saw this person dressed up as a colonialist in the 1700s, the white wig and the black shoes with buckles. She went up to him, and she said, "Do you mind if I take your picture?" He was standing there straight and tall with his hands behind is back, and he asked, "And this would make you happy?" She said, "Oh yes, it would very much." Then he was like, "Then it is what I live for."

 

Then she said, "Look, could you go tell my husband that line?" He smiled and he says, "That is what all the ladies say." It's a great way of doing this. Listen, we need to be willing to see what would make the other person happy, and then to live for that, because that could be a way of meeting somebody half way. Imagine how awesome the contentment and the feelings of doing that in gratitude if we'd be able to kind of meet somebody at that point.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's the first pitfall of a truce is you fall in love with the truce. We're not yelling. We're not getting upset, because we are avoiding purposefully this topic. You do need to bring it up eventually. What we're talking about is how to bring it up using the third story or a gentle start up. Here's another pitfall of a marital truce. It's overwhelming your spouse once the truce is over. It can be human nature, by the way. Let's say your truce lasts a week. During that week it could be human nature to say, "I'll tell you what. I will tell you what. When this truce is over, I'm going to say this, and I'm going to for sure bring ... I'd love to hear her response to this." Guess what? The truce isn't going to work, because emotionally and mentally you're just loading up ammunition to really go after your spouse or roommate once the truce is over.

 

We have to have a gentle startup, is what we've talked about before. We probably should also have a criteria of what should we bring up once the truce is over? One author I like a lot is his name is Chris [Braums 00:10:58]. He says there's two kind of criteria of what you should bring up. First, ask yourself the simple question, "How important is this? For me to bring it up after the truce, is this really in my top three? Is this really the most important thing I can do?" Then the second one is is this a pattern in the person's life, or is this just one instance? If it's just one instance, I think we can sweep it under the carpet. If it's a pattern, then I think that's totally legitimate to bring that up.

Chris Grace:

Another way of looking at this, Tim, I think there's also where can I ... Something to ask yourself is where can I compromise on this situation, and what's the deal breaker? What is so important that ... Listen, for example, Alisa loves to spend time with her sister and her family. She needs to be able to do that. If I was able to say at some point say, "I'm tired of you spending time with your sister and your family. You need to cut that out," that would be a deal breaker in some respects. That would not be anything that would be very helpful.

 

Instead, what we look for are ways that different situations where we can compromise in a way that brings out in a kind of respectful way our different ways of seeing this issue. We agree, "Okay, there are some things that we're just going to keep off the table, but there are some where we can compromise." If during this truce period you can think of no areas in which you're willing to compromise, then boy, I'll tell you what, that is a hard hearted stance, I think that the Apostle Paul would say. We need to find room to compromise. Where am I wrong? Where am I overreacting? That's why this truce is inherently a spiritual process where David says, "Search my heart." I need to know what's happening in my during this truce. Have I gotten to the point where I've so lost my positive feelings toward this person, I need to reclaim those in some way.

 

Tim, what do you think about also this notion where you call, and you come back in, and you agree what you're going to talk about? It seems like you can reestablish a sense of a being on the same team versus individual. If you're on the same team, what do teammates do? They look at a situation, and they go, "Hey, we can figure this out. We can brainstorm on something. We should get together and talk about this. What are some things we can put into place?" You recapture this sense of we're together in this. Let's brainstorm and talk about some things that we can do here. It establishes almost an undercurrent of we're in this together. This is not going to go away, and I'm with you.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Chris, that's a huge part of the third story. The opening of a third story, a good one, a conciliatory one is this: we both care about family vacations. We both think they're incredibly valuable. We both love and appreciate our in-laws. We both think the kids' education is really important. We both think that we need to have some kind of a budget. We both agree that the apartment needs to be clean. We both value study time. The devil is in the details. That's where the third story comes in. We both agree that study time is really important. You like to study with absolutely no sound whatsoever, and I like to study with music playing in the background. Again, we're on the same team. We absolutely care about the same things. We value the same things. It's just we're going at this differently.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, good. I like that. There's a notion of this idea of getting to a win-win, right? Sometimes if I just get to my point where I win, it's going to be quiet when we study, and that's just the way it's going to be. I'm going to win that argument. I'm going to win that battle, but sometimes I'm going to lose kind of the relationship. A compromise is coming up with and brainstorming about, "Wait a minute, what are some things we could do creatively?" Maybe there's a way to say, "Hey, I'll tell you what? For the next couple of times we're going to nice and keep it quiet, but then we're going to have music," and kind of learning how to compromise, and getting to this point where we both feel we've won. That idea is interesting, because there could be a win-win in a lot of these issues.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, I think a win-win is great. Going back to your thoughts on humility, a win-win means you're going to win as well. Again, what's been so disappointing about the political climate in our country has been, "I'm not willing to do a win-win. I'm not willing to compromise." That's hard. Let me mention one thing now that I was thinking as you were speaking. What do you do if your self-talk has gotten so negative that you're finding it increasingly difficult to come up with a good third story? In other words, "I don't think you care about this marriage. For me to say that just isn't true. I don't think you care about us, and that's the problem. I'm not going to do this disingenuous third story to say we both care about the marriage, because quite frankly I don't think you do. I don't think you care about the apartment." What do you do when it's gotten that negative?

Chris Grace:

Yeah, if it gets that negative, I think there's a difference if you're in a marriage relationship versus if you're in a friendship, a roommate situation. If you're in a marriage relationship and that's coming up, I really think that's probably the time you need to go start getting some outside advice. You need to go talk to somebody who really is a third objective opinion and ask them, "Listen." That might be a professional counselor. It might be a pastor. It might be a trusted friend who you could use. At some point you're going to need to do that.

 

I think if it's in a friendship, a roommate situation, I think then that's maybe the time to check your heart and to wonder, "God, what's going on here? Where have I gotten off? What's going on in this relationship? How can it be salvaged? What role am I playing in this?" Again, you could even use a trusted friend at that point.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I think it's wise to make that distinction, Chris, because if it's a friendship or a roommate situation and you honestly have come to believe, "I don't think you care about this friendship the way I do, and I certainly don't think you're investing the way I'm investing," that friendship doesn't necessarily have to continue. If it becomes toxic like that, if a roommate situation, then you know what? Your house needs to be, your apartment needs to be a type of sanctuary. The hard, sobering thing about marriage is you got to deal with it, because you can't go on thinking your spouse doesn't care about the marriage. Yeah, it's good to make that distinction of what kind of relationship are we actually talking about.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. All right. Any other pitfalls that you think would be important to recognize as we get to this point? I would think that some of the last pitfalls would be recognizing when a conflict is greater or more than the both of you at this point have the ability to handle. A truce, you've called it. You've worked on it, but you just seem to be what's called this ... It seems like a perpetual or unsolvable problem. It just keeps going, and you need to be able to identify is this solvable? If it's not, how do I then realize and recognize? What can I do to take steps to fix this? Do I need to at that point seek out somebody that's a little bit more well-trained in this? What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:

We've seen a huge generational difference when it comes to counseling. A very positive shift has happened with millennials in the fact that, yeah, counseling is great. Of course I need counseling. I go to a math tutor for my math class. I go to a chem tutor for chemistry. Why wouldn't I go to a relational tutor or somebody to help me? I think that's great. We've seen at our marriage conferences the older generation looks at getting that input as, "I failed. I don't want to be a loser when I go." Chris, what would you do in a situation where one person recognizes, "Hey, we need some marital counseling," and the other spouse just refuses to do it? What would you advocate in that kind of situation?

Chris Grace:

If there's a pattern like that, and the second person, the one who's unwilling is both either unwilling because they just don't want to, or they feel overwhelmed. Maybe they're heart is beginning to show signs of hardening. We call that stonewalling, where they're building things to protect them. It feels to them emotionally unsafe. That's a troubling sign only in this regard. Stonewalling becomes a sign that a person is really processing some things and really isn't able to see the other side. They're trying to protect themselves. I think if that is the pattern, they're going to need to get some help in how to express, talk about deep hurt or traumas that are going on, things that are happening, or why this is so threatening for them.

 

One of the things they will need to do and recognize is this might be a time for me to kind of figure out why is this shell that I'm diving into and hiding behind, what's going on there? The other person just being able to graciously give that person space and time, but also holding them to this like, "Listen. We really do need to talk about this, because this pattern isn't good. I'm always wanting to talk. We need to do this, and you're not able to." I think at that point you have to be very carefully that doesn't lead into an emotionally unhealthy place for either of you.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I would say I think it's perfectly fine for one person to go get counseling.

Chris Grace:

Oh yeah, not a problem.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Absolutely, to get coping strategies, to deal with my anger issues, my disappointment, my sarcasm. I think that's very beneficial. Again, I think sometimes we think about counseling as, "Who's got money for half a year of counseling?" That isn't always the case. You go to an expert, and in one sitting you can get some great strategies. Don't always think of counseling as this long commitment of a year or more or anything like that. Yeah.

Chris Grace:

I think, Tim, this idea of a truce, to summarize it, I think what I'm hearing and I think what can be very helpful for our listeners is to recognise that a truce is an extremely valuable opportunity, if used right. It's a chance to be self-reflective. It's a chance to ask for the way in which I perceive the other person to change. It's a chance for me to say, "God, help me change not only my anxious thoughts, but help me to see from another person's perspective." Those could be just valuable relational skills and tools that we all need to have, and a truce provides space, time in a period where you can begin to reestablish the good things about a relationship. "We used to have fun. We love hanging out together."

 

As you were talking, that's one of the cool things that a truce allows you to do. It gives you a chance to be reflective, to allow God to come back into this relationship, to reestablish the fun that we used to have, and then to begin to see each other as being on the same team. Those are all really cool things.

Tim Muehlhoff:

If this topic interests readers, in the book "Marriage Forecasting" that I wrote a couple years ago, I dedicate a whole chapter to this. Maybe check out "Marriage Forecasting", InterVarsity Press. Also there's other great books. During that truce period when you want to do positive things, sometimes I think we just get in a rut, and we just can't think of what to do. There are some great books out there. There's one called "1001 Ways to Romance Your Spouse". Again, to think about some of those things, to say, "Oh, I can do that. That's a piece of cake," I actually have a book in my office called "1001 Ways to Romance Your Spouse". I honestly think they only had really 500 good ideas, but they wanted to call it "1001".

 

Here's one that I thought was brilliant. They said go right now to a drug store and purchase seven or eight greeting cards. Make half of them funny and half of them serious. Have them in your briefcase, in the kitchen, at the office, wherever. Then just out of the blue write a card, send it. I think the electronic version of that is to send an unexpected text, kind of stuff like that. Even a fun emojis, fun photographs kind of stuff like this.

 

Remember the great commercial, this is one of my all time favorite commercials is this man is leaving on a business trip. His kids are saying, "Daddy, I got a gift for you. Daddy, I got a gift for you." He's saying, "Oh, this is awesome. This is awesome." The wife goes, "Yeah, daddy. Turn on your phone. Mommy gave you a gift." He turns on his phone. All you see is his eyes open." She goes, "That's waiting for you when you get home." It was great to think about that. Again, these repair mechanisms during a truce are just a key element of it. A book like "1001 Ways" could give you some interesting, creative ideas.

Chris Grace:

There are some other great creatives ideas at the cmr.biola.edu. We have blogs and other resources on how to make your wives stay, how to make your husbands stay, how to handle relationships. We highlight lots of good skills and tools like that. It's one of the cool things that we put together. Why we're doing our whole center is for couples, for people in relationships, whether it's a friendship that you have, or something more serious, we deal with this issue head on in a lot of our talks and communications, simply because this, Tim, happens to be one of the areas that couples deal with a lot. That is this need to call a truce during times of conflict.

 

Thanks for sharing these thoughts and ideas. Join us next time on the art of relationships podcast. Take care.


The Art of Relationships Podcast

The Art of Relationships podcast, hosted by Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, is centered on helping you build healthy relationships and marriages. In this podcast, Chris (director of Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and professor of psychology at Biola University) and Tim (professor of communication at Biola University and author of I Beg to Differ), weigh in on how to navigate the complexities of relationships in our culture with biblical wisdom and scholarly research. Listen to get practical insights on relationships, dating and marriage that can be applied to all relationships  — family, friends, co-workers and others.

 

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